In the United States, since roughly 1800, there have been two majorpolitical parties. For the last 150 years or so, these two parties have been the Democrat and Republican parties. This is in deep contrast to many other democratic nations, who often have as many as ten significant parties. Many people wonder why the United States has only two parties and why it is so difficult for a third or a fourth party to make any significant gains and become a noteworthy player on the national political scene. The reasons are many and varied.
The first two opposing groups in U.S. political history were theFederalists and the Anti-Federalists. In the early years of our nation, the Federalists dominated in power, because they were essentially the “money” party; they represented the merchants and the manufacturers, whereas the Anti-Federalists (who would gradually become known as the Democratic Republicans, and eventually as just the Democrats) represented the artisans and the farmers.
Eventually, these two parties evolved into representing two distinct sets of interests. The Democrats came to represent the agriculturaland frontier interests in the South and West, while the Federalists (who eventually evolved into the Republican party) supported commercial interests in the East. In other words, certain parts of the country voted almost exclusively for one party, and the two parties held ideologies that best supported their particular section. This was known as sectional politics, and the idea lasted well into the 20th century.
Given their already established power, the two party system managed to perpetuate itself onto a national level, this time making its power on the idea of class politics, where traditionally the Republican Partyrepresents the more financially affluent and the Democratic Partyrepresents the working class and the poor. In other words, the two parties have always benefited by exploiting geographic and financialdivisions.
Children often adopt the political party of their parents. Given that throughout history, the two parties managed to make themselves dominant through sectional and class politics, their power is self-perpetuating through the fact that many children simply inherit the political party of their parents, guaranteeing the two major parties a built-in voting bloc with each generation.
After the new United States Congress completed its first task of creating a Bill of Rights, it turned its attention to the issue of financing the new government. President George Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as the Treasury Secretary, and Hamilton took it upon himself to develop an economic structure for the United States that would give the public confidence in the government’s financial affairs.
The American Two-Party System
The United States has only two major political parties: the Democrats and the Republicans. These parties have a duopoly, meaning that they share almost all the political power in the country. Parties in Other Democracies
Most democratic countries have more than two parties. In Israel, for example, twelve parties or party alliances held seats in the seventeenth Knesset. Japan has several major parties, including the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Japan, the New Komeito, and the Japanese Communist Party.
The Electoral System
In the United States, a candidate wins the election by gaining a plurality, or more votes than any other candidate. This is a winner-take-all systembecause there is no reward for the party or candidate that finishes second. Parties aim to be as large as possible, smoothing over differences among candidates and voters. There is no incentive to form a party that consistently gets votes but cannot win an election. As a result, two political parties usually dominate plurality electoral systems to the disadvantage of smaller third parties, just as the Democrats and the Republicans dominate the American political system.
No one person or organization prevents third parties from forming, but the plurality system itself usually hinders their efforts to win votes. The United States also has mostly single-member districts, meaning that each legislative district sends only one member to the legislature. There is no benefit to finishing second. Some countries use multiple-member districts, which makes it easier for minor parties to succeed because there are more members winning seats in the legislature.
The Electoral College
The Electoral College exacerbates the winner-take-all system because in all but two states, whoever wins the most popular votes wins all of the state’s electoral votes in the presidential election. The electoral rules favor a two-party system, and minor parties have a very difficult time competing in such a system. Even successful third-party candidates often fail to get a single electoral vote.
Example: In the 1992 presidential election, independent candidate H. Ross Perot received nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, but he did not get a single electoral vote. Other recent third-party candidates—including John Anderson in 1980, Perot again in 1996, and Ralph Nader in 2000—also failed to win electoral votes. The last third-party candidate to win any electoral votes was George Wallace in 1968’s tumultuous election.
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are a few advantages of the American two-party system:
• Stability: Two-party systems are more stable than multiparty systems • Moderation: The two parties must appeal to the middle to win elections, so the parties tend to be moderate. • Ease: Voters have only to decide between two parties.
But there are also a few disadvantages to our system, including the following:
• Lack of choice: Both parties tend to be very similar, limiting voters’ options. • Less democratic: A percentage of people will always feel marginalized by the system.
The Early Republic: Federalists Versus Antifederalists (1792–1800)
The first political issue that divided American statesmen was the ratification of the Constitution. On one side were the Federalists, who wanted to ratify the Constitution in order to create a stronger national government; the Antifederalists, on the other side, feared that the Constitution would strip people of the liberties they had just won in the Revolutionary War. Although the Constitution was ratified, this early political division extended into the first decades of the republic. The Federalists allied themselves to Alexander Hamilton and President John Adams, while Thomas Jefferson rallied the Antifederalists, who had begun calling themselves the Democratic Republicans. Neither faction was a true party in the modern sense, though, because both lacked strong cohesion.
The Jacksonian Era: Democrats Versus Whigs (1824–1850)
The first modern political party was the Democratic Party, which formed in the wake of the highly contested presidential election of 1824, when Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but did not win a majority of electoral votes. The House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams to be the next president. In response, Jackson’s supporters organized the Democratic Party to oppose the Adams Administration. The Democrats rebounded in four years and elected Jackson to replace Adams in 1828. The Democrats were also the first major grassroots party, building support from the ground up. Those disparate politicians who opposed Jackson’s policies formed a temporary coalition known as the Whig Party.
The Antebellum Period: Democrats Versus Republicans (1850–1860)
Over the next few decades, slavery emerged as a hugely divisive issue, as pro-slavery forces fought abolitionists with increasing intensity. Neither the Whigs nor the Democrats could respond adequately to the new issue. As a result, both parties split in two along sectional lines.
The Republican Party formed in the late 1840s and early 1850s out of abolitionist Democrats and northern Whigs. The Democrats, on the other hand, now consisted primarily of Southerners and rural Westerners. In 1860, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas, whereas Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge. Lincoln narrowly won the race with promises of maintaining the Union, but his election nevertheless prompted South Carolina and several other Southern states to secede.